Understanding the Term “Christian”

When you hear the term Christian, it probably elicits a response similar to one created by the terms Muslim, Buddhist, Jew, or Catholic. We have preconceptions and assumptions based on the label. It is a term that has been overused and misused to the point that some followers of Christ wish to dispense with the term altogether. In many ways, it has lost meaning and context because of the free way we use the word.

Literally, the word means, “that which pertains to Christ,” and it is used only three times in the entire New Testament. Each time this word is used, it says something different about our relationship with each other and with our savior. Acts 11 speaks to our relationship with one another. In Acts 26, Paul is speaking of our relationship with God, and Peter, in I Peter 4, speaks of our relationship with the world.

Acts 11

In Acts 11:19, numerous disciples scatter in the face of persecution, following the execution of Stephen. They teach Christ as they travel, and many turn to Christ in baptism. We see Barnabas and Saul in Antioch, and here the followers of Christ are first called by the term Christian. Here, it calls attention to the relationship the disciples had to one another. These are people who had left Judaism, who were persecuted, who were disowned by their communities and their families. All they have is each other, and they rely on each other in their travels.

We are not all-sufficient; we are not islands. John 13:34 records Jesus telling His disciples to love each other, and this love is one demonstrated in service, in reliance, in cohesiveness. Galatians 6:9-10 reminds us to work good toward all, and Paul says this goodwill is especially targeted toward fellow Christians. We are told to prefer one another, to honor one another, to bear each other’s burdens. Our love for one another as Christians serves as a testimony to our relationship with each other in Christ.

Acts 26

In Acts 26, Paul is defending his actions before politician after politician. He stands before these dignitaries and speaks of the gospel to them. He speaks of self-control and righteousness, and he recounts his conversion. Starting in verse 19, Paul begins pressuring Agrippa about his faith and his willingness to respond to the gospel call. Where Festus recoils, Agrippa admits, in verse 28, that Paul almost persuades him to become a Christian.

Paul is speaking of having a right relationship with God. Paul knows Agrippa identifies with the things he testifies about, and he also knows that Agrippa is aware his relationship with God is not right. Agrippa sees Paul’s devotion to the living God, and Paul invites him to have that same relationship, a relationship we should also have when we wear the name of Christian.

I Peter 4

In I Peter 4:12, Peter addresses the trials and persecutions Christ’s followers will face in this world. He calls us “blessed” if we are reproached for the cause of Christ, and he calls on disciples to not suffer as troublemakers or as criminals but as Christians. He reinforces the concept that we are in the world but not of the world. That separation from a lost and dying world will earn friction.

As Christians, we are no longer content to live in darkness. We are no longer willing to compromise our morals based on God’s word. Because of how are light will reflect upon those who disagree with us, we will face hardships because of our faith. Think of Hebrews 11 and the trials faced by those numerous examples cited therein. Some overcame great odds while others were mocked, tortured, neglected, mistreated, or even murdered. God, however, provides something better. Those examples could overcome, and we can too.


The term Christian is used sparingly in the New Testament. It is unique and special. It speaks to the relationship we have with each other, with God, and with the world. If our lives do not reflect those relationships, then we should not wear that precious name so casually. Our salvation is in Christ. Our lives are defined by His words and His example. Our interactions with our brothers and sisters as well as the world are defined by that relationship with our Savior. We are Christ’s. We are Christians. We should be working every day to live up to that name.

lesson by Tim Smelser